Internet Tour Guides

The author gamely attempts to bridge the gaps between the characters he brings to life in his diary of exploration and the rest of us, the imagined readers of his book.

If you wanted to visit Cyberia, the psychic landscape described in the recent book of the same name by Douglas Rushkoff, you'd do well to prepare yourself with a trip through his pages. But you wouldn't have much to guide you when you were done; vague references to various locales in and around San Francisco and a strong sense of an extended group of people with a decidedly different take on life.

Here's a sample (from the chapter called “Gardners Ov Thee Abyss''):

The Temple Ov Psychick Youth is a nett-work for the dissemination of majick (their spellings) through the culture for the purpose of human emancipation. TOPY (rhymes with soapy) began as a fan club and ideological forum for Genesis P. Orridge, founder of industrial band Throbbing Gristle and its house spin-off Psychic TV, but soon developed into a massive cultish web of majick practitioners and datasphere enthusiasts. They are the most severe example of technopaganism....

Familiar figures (Timothy O'Leary, Mitch Kapor) make guest appearances in Cyberia. Familiar technologies (discos, BBSs) do as well. The author gamely attempts to bridge the gaps between the characters he brings to life in his diary of exploration and the rest of us, the imagined readers of his book. But in the end Cyberia comes up more a collection of in-your-face attitudes than a place; more a self-absorbed and self-reverential crowd slinging buzz words and recreational drugs than a representation of the forces that could (on the last page) ”slowly pull our society; even our world; past the event horizon of the great attractor at the end of time''.

If, on the other hand, you wanted to take a tour of cyberspace, as it exists today and is evolving on the anarchic Internet, you'd do well to prepare yourself with a trip through the pages of Ed Krol's The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog. There are literally dozens of books that cover similar ground on the shelves of any well-stocked bookstore. It's hard to imagine, though, one that would be of more general use to anyone familiar with a desktop computer who needed the keys to unlock the mysteries of exploring the 'net.

This is the second edition of a work that (by its publisher's count) sold a quarter of a million copies in the first edition. That popularity is, to my taste, well deserved. This is a book that can lead you step-by-step through first-time use of some very powerful, and very frustrating, tools. And it's a book you can return to time and again for useful tips as your knowledge grows and your sense of the possible expands. The detailed instructions on the major tools; ftp, mail, newsreaders, gopher, WAIS and WWW; go well beyond the basics without trying to substitute for a manual page or technical compendium. Yet they always start from a clear vision of what an explorer will need to master the tools personally, to enjoy creative use in place of keystroke-by-keystroke repetition.

This is not, though, the book I'd choose as a gift for someone newly venturing alone onto this network of interconnected computers. The goal of serving the needs and interests of people as they grow in their use of the 'net is well met. But it's met by saying so much that any true newcomer can hardly avoid being overwhelmed.

Throughout, though, Krol adopts a breezy, reassuring tone that seems directed at newcomers. It occasionally leads to a heartiness that strikes a false note with me.... “The commands you use may be slightly different, to make them more like a 'normal' command on your computer system, but when and why you use which command will remain the same.'' Only if it works! It doesn't take too long to learn that one machine's ”slightly“ is another's light-year. Keeping the reader informed (as he does) when upper vs. lower case makes a difference is a step in the right direction. But there are just too many places on the 'net where getting something ”slightly“ wrong means getting nothing at all. A brief discussion of strategies to employ in such cases wouldn't be out of place.

In general, this book is pitched toward the user on a campus or in a large organization where there are sources for day-to-day tech support available for the asking. He encourages his readers to ”ask the systems administrator“ about intractable problems. Little guidance is provided for people on community systems or low-cost Unix providers, such as searching for on-line help in the form of manual pages or FAQ files for the quirks that every 'net cruiser comes to know and love, or even bravely asking the question in newsgroups where there may be solace for the baffled.

The great strength of this book is opening up practical use of the 'net as a source of information for research or personal interests. Seventy-two pages at the back list resource after resource for exploring topics broad and arcane. The index is divided into two parts; one ”technical'', the other a “catalog” of gopher sites to visit and files to transfer.

It disappoints me, though, that there is so little recognition of the possibility that a new sort of community is growing up in cyberspace, where world-circling friendships and alliances can be formed for all manner of purposes unrelated to the location of data or capture of information. The catalog cites “December's Guide to Internet Resources” (anonymous ftp to ftp.rpi.edu, cd pub/communications) without shedding much light on the fascinations of computer-mediated communications. IRC gets four not very informative pages; MUDs two. The possibility of using the MUD metaphor to link people for real-world, not fantasy, tasks gets one cryptic sentence about “MOO-style” conferencing tools.

And while I'm on the subject of things being cryptic, let me carp for a moment about cross-references. There are important terms in the text that don't show up in the index (“terminal specification”) or in the glossary (“daemon” and “escape”). Some subjects are mentioned once and carefully explained. Others pop up time and again (“regular expressions”) but are never addressed. There's a seven-page “Unix Primer” (very useful) in Appendix D. But these pages weren't included in the Technical Index, so the only reference to “grep” (for example) sends the reader to a footnote which advises learning more about Unix, not to the brief and helpful explanation of this command which is provided in Appendix D.

In a first edition, these missed opportunities might be expected. After 250,000 copies have been printed, it should have been possible to find, and deal with, most of them.

Carping aside, Ed Krol's The Whole Internet has great strengths. Strengths which justify its position as a pre- eminent guide for touring the Internet. Not the least are the numerous full-text examples of terminal sessions, where every keystroke is shown and many are explained. These examples make this book particularly useful for anyone who has an occasional reason to pick up a new tool and visit an unfamiliar part of the 'net. If you anticipate having that need, this tested and updated classic will be a good companion to have at your side on the journey.

Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace, by Douglas Rushkoff. HarperSanFrancisco (a divison of HarperCollins Publishers). ISBN 0-06-251010-X. $22.00.

The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog (second edition), by Ed Krol. O'Reilly & Associates, Inc. (A Nutshell Handbook). ISBN 1-56592-063-5. $24.95.

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